Bonnie Smith and the Mirror of History

in French Politics, Culture & Society
Author:
Richard Ivan Jobs Pacific University richardivanjobs@pacificu.edu

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In A Crooked Line (2005), Geoff Eley combines personal memoir with historiography to consider the changes to historical practice during his career, particularly the rise of social history and that of cultural history.* Both approaches, he says, foregrounded the histories of suppressed or hidden groups and both relied upon interdisciplinary methodologies to do so. Yet a bitter rift emerged between the adherents of each, particularly regarding historical claims to truth, a tension that he identifies as peaking in the mid-1980s. To exemplify the shifts underway, he focuses on the unusual structure and form of Carolyn Steedman’s 1986 book, Landscape for a Good Woman. While I have no quibbles with his choice, in this essay I want to point to another text from the same moment that deserves revisiting, particularly given the way it experiments with historical storytelling and the interplay of the professional and the personal. Bonnie Smith’s slim 1985 volume, Confessions of a Concierge, has arguably been overshadowed by her later work of monographs, collections, textbooks, and encyclopedia. As 2015 marks the thirtieth anniversary of its publication, as well as Bonnie Smith’s official retirement from Rutgers University, I offer here an evaluation of the book, consider its rather awkward reception, and situate it within concerns that continue to preoccupy historians of France and Europe.

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